Category Archives: Benefits of exercise
At a class recently I was asked why I teach 180 beats (or foot falls) per minute is the most efficient. My answer was “because science said so”. So to prove that I wasn’t lying and to make up for my brevity in the initial answer, here is the science:
Check out this blog post from one of my favorite bloggers Alex Hutchinson of Sweat Science (now writing at Runner World). I came across it when I was first looking into running cadence and it remains (in my opinion) one of the most succinct writings on the topic. Be sure to check out some of the original articles linked in there as well as the video. He has a little more on the subject on the blog as well so be sure to check out the other posts.
This post is actually linked in the above one but it’s definitely worth a read by itself, from Dave Munger at Science Based Running
And just to offer some counter point to the theory check out this post from Peter Larson writing at Tread Lightly on how 180 is not the be all and end all.
At the end of the day I believe that 180 is a good target for most people to have, especially if there are not experienced runners. But as you can probably tell there is plenty of information out there on the subject so read up and inform yourself.
For thousands of years our bodies adapted to the environment around us. Our surrounds forced us to walk, crawl, run, jump, climb etc etc. Our bodies look and move the way they do because they were forced to adapt and evolve to the stressors that the environment placed upon them. So if we became who we are today by our environment, what happens to us if we take away that stress?
Modern life is a pursuit of comfort. We constantly seek out easier ways to do our daily activities. We create more and more ergonomic designs for our environment. The upside is obvious – our lives are easier – but do we ever consider what the long term effects are, and I mean long term as in multi-generational. In short, what are we doing to the evolution of our species? By making things easier in the short term we are actually making them harder for us in the long term. Just ask anyone who has suffered lower back pain or RSI of the wrists from sitting a desk for too long. We weren’t built to do these things. We will adapt but it will take time and will be painful.
It’s not that we are devolving, we never really devolve (or de-evolve?), we just evolve in a different way. We become most ‘fit’ for what we need to do. The problem being here is that today we don’t need to do anything. We can almost get away with sitting in chair all day. To me that’s a bit of a scary thought, It’s not something I want to particularly become adapted to. And then what if we were suddenly forced to rely on our bodies again to survive? How many people could?
Evolution by it’s nature is an adaptation to environmental pressures, so if we control our environment, we technically control how we evolve. I like to think of it as that we now have a choice. We can continue to utilise technology and ergonomic designs to make our lives easier and evolve to the current state of our environment OR we can continue to utilise our bodies the way they where made to – by placing them under stress, even if it’s simulated, and pushing them beyond what they could previously do. We can either forget the genetic heritage we have been given or we can choose to build upon it.
Just a little something for you to mull over while you’re thinking about your training this week. Maybe instead of picking up that weighted bar, which just so happens to be the perfect size for a closed fist, try picking up a log, sand bag or rock. Pull ups onto a tree branch. Box Jumps onto a rock. All the environmental stressors your body needs to adapt to are out there, you just have to get out and use them.
I usually get pretty slack with going barefoot during Winter (especially when I was down in Canberra), preferring to utilise minimalist shoes for my runs but spring is now days away so what better reason to unleash your feet and get into (or back into) barefoot running.
Barefoot running is a great way to not only learn a biomechanically efficient way to move but if built up to and done properly, can be a great way to prevent future injuries by strengthening stability muscles and improving balance.
Jumping into barefoot running with both feet however can be problematic, with most of the complaints I usually get from barefoot runners being that they injured themselves from trying to do too much too quickly. So here’s a little quick start guide to get you out there barefoot and injury free.
1. Toughen up your sole - Start by being barefoot around your house as much as possible. Whenever you have the chance, kick the shoes off and walk around. This will start to get you used to moving without shoes and will start ‘toughen’ the soles of your feet.
2. Barefoot walks - Go for a stroll with some shoes that are easily removable and take them off for sections of the walk. As you get used to walking around barefoot progressively introduce more barefoot sections.
3. Barefoot runs - Using the same theory as the walks, use shoes that are easily removable to add barefoot sections to your run (I would recommend something like New Balance Minimus or Merrell Foot Gloves). Slowly build up the barefoot sections until you can run the whole way with out shoes. I recommend that you start by running on grass until you start to get the technique correct before progressing to harder surfaces. It is a good idea to plan your route with softer sections in it (like grass or dirt) so that if you do need to give your feet a break you can.
A good point to note with barefoot running is that there is definitely an efficient and an inefficient way to run (As I outlined in a previous post here). It is probably worth checking out some of the running technique videos on YouTube or reading up on POSE running technique to get a rough idea of what you should be doing.
4. Recovery massage - The calves and feet will probably get sore after barefoot running for the first couple of times, so make sure you stretch after the runs and use self massage techniques like rolling a golf ball into the calves and the arch of the foot to aid with recovery.
Hopefully this helps some of you to get out there sans shoes.
Our bodies are extremely good at adapting to situations. This is one of the underlying principles of strength and conditioning training, we stress the body and in response the body adapts to better tackle the situation the next time we encounter it. However because of this, our bodies can become extremely well adapted to a response if we continually give the same stimulus. For example if we run the same path, same distance on the same terrain every day, our bodies become ‘used’ to doing it, and as such end up doing it in the easiest or most efficient way possible. Which is great right? Well it is and it isn’t.
Becoming efficient at a form of movement is basically the goal, but we also want to continue to progress, grow and become stronger, faster and generally more capable human beings. And that is what we lose, that ability to continue to grow, when we don’t modify our training.
So to come back to the point, training in nature – where everything is different – will invariably give us this varied stimuli that we need. Every rock that you pick up or tree that you climb is a different size, shape or weight. It will require a different grip, hold, and strength to move or climb. Ergonomic hand holds are vary rare in the real world so to train with devices designed to be used by us is, in a way, defeating the purpose of training.
So yes it’s sometimes difficult to hold, slippery, unmanageable or just plain tough, but this is the whole point of it – to fully utilise the nature of our how our bodies work, we should utilise the nature of our environment.
What is a workout? Is it pushing yourself hard for 30-60 minutes? Hitting the gym? Going for a run? Working up a sweat with 10-15 minutes of warm ups and a 5 minute cool down. I was recently forced to think about how I define a ‘workout’ when I sat down with a friend who is about to start training with me.
I kept using the word ‘workout’ when it suddenly occurred to me that our individual concepts on what a workout is may be very different. Having worked in and around the fitness industry for a few years now, I know that the norm is a one hour workout with warmup and cool down included, and this is probably the way most people would view a workout. There where many times when I was training people in the past that I would find myself padding out or filling in time to the end of the session just because they expected to go for one hour. Needless to say this is not how I do things anymore. As I explained to my friend, this is not how I train myself, so why would I train others differently.
To me the word workout is a very broad term encompassing many different activities. It doesn’t need to be ‘for time’ or have as many rounds as possible, it just needs to be me moving in some way. Some days it’s climbing a tree. Some days it’s walking (or chasing) the dog. Whatever the goal of the particular activity I’m doing, what I definitely don’t focus on is the time. If practicing scaling walls takes me 5 minutes then that may be it for the session. The point being that I don’t tailor the activity to the time.
Something else to consider in the time of a workout in relation to the intensity is the risk of injury. Obviously the more tired you are, the higher the risk of doing something wrong and thus the possibility of injury. So if you have gone hard at the start and continue to exercise after, you are putting yourself at a higher risk of injury. Do you really need to keep going to fill in the time? Or have you completed the ‘workout’ you set out to do?
Having a structure is a great idea and the one hour session does make a lot of sense, especially if you’re starting out, but try to consider it as a plan that can be deviated from rather than the hard and fast rule. Another problem I often hear in relation to the time of a workout is “I don’t have time to workout”, well my answer is shorten the workout. Tailor the activity to what time you do have and get back to the ‘plan’ of a longer workout when you do have the time.
So don’t feel constrained by the feeling that your workout needs to be a certain length of time. Focus more on the goal of what you are setting out to achieve rather than the goal of filling out time, there’s probably something else you can be spending that time on, and if you are struggling for time in your life don’t drop activity from your life all together just remember – doing a little of something is better than doing a lot of nothing.
Cavemen probably didn’t take 5 minutes to ‘warm up’ before stalking their prey. Or running from from a predator for that matter. So why do we insist on the need to almost ritualistically perform a set routine before we workout? And does it even help?
The short answer, sadly, is yes we do need to perform this. Warm ups have been shown to increase performance and decrease the chance of injury during activity. So why do we need to this? Well here is my theory – Our lives today are filled with movements (or more specifically lack of movement) that are inherently unnatural or just fundamentally different to the movement patterns of our ancestors. So much so that now when we attempt to do any of these movements, which would have been everyday activity for our fore bearers like swimming, running, climbing, etc, we need to ‘remind’ our body how to do it.
Keeping this in mind, you should use the time set out for warm ups as a chance to help correct these poor movement patterns brought about by modern life. Do drills to increase range of motion in joints and that help ‘switch on’ muscle groups (i.e. slow deep squats for the hip/knee/ankle joints). Crawling, rolling, walking, balancing are also great ways to help this process (for a variety of reasons). In effect what you are doing is rehabilitating your movement patterns, or hitting the ‘re set’ button on them (what I like to call ‘resetabilitation). Once you’ve re set the movement patterns to a more natural default, movement within a workout or activity should be easier and safer.
Once your body gets used to being put through these sorts of movements, the need to warm up for every activity decreases. This isn’t, however, a carte blanche for never doing warm ups again, rather a shift in the concept of what exactly a warm up entails. Instead of just getting your body physically warm before an activity, you should be getting it physically and mentally alert and prepared.
The result being that when we really need to perform under pressure, like when we are in an emergency of some kind, we won’t need to say “Wait, time out everyone. I just need 5 minutes to warm up” (kind of like Zombieland Survival rule #18: Limber Up). We’ll just be able to do it.
Whilst researching the topic of the negative effects of sedentary behaviour on the body I came across these articles, both by Alex Hutchinson (writing for The Globe and Mail and blogging on Sweat Science), on the ill effect that sitting for long periods of time can have on the body.
The more recent one from Sweat Science, is a good synopsis of how sedentary behaviour, in particular sitting, has an effect on how our bodies handle sugar. The answer, according this Australian study, is not very well. Apparently the test group that sat (as oppose to those who had walking breaks) had a much higher spike in blood sugar levels. So, without getting too technical, insulin, which should be taking care of the blood sugar levels, isn’t doing it’s job. This makes sense when you consider the fact that exercise causes an insulin like effect on the body, causing you to take up sugar out of the blood (that’s why exercise is really handy for people who have diabetes too!)
For more of a background on this subject, check out Alex’s article in the Globe and Mail.
Breathing. It’s something that most of us don’t give a thought to in our everyday lives. This also applies to us when exercise, that most of us don’t think to much about it until we are out of it. But breathing the correct way can be as important to exercise as the exercise itself. Breathing the right way during exercise can make tasks easier and can help prevent injury.
An efficient cardio-vascular system is an obvious benefit, but breathing can help us in other ways. During lifts we can use our breath to brace our spine, creating a stronger core and helping reduce the risk of injury. By holding our breath and slowly releasing during strenuous activity, we increase the internal pressure and create a more stable area throughout the lower spine (lumbar) region.
To do this, we need to ‘breathe through the stomach’ (Although known as breathing through the stomach, this isn’t actually what we’re doing, as you’ll see). The point is to breath deeply, utilising more of the lungs, especially the lower part which generally doesn’t get used. This requires using the diaphragm, which sits in between the lungs and area below (termed ‘the stomach’). The diaphragm, pushes down to cause the lungs to draw in air, and it’s this pushing down that causes the organs below to be pushed down and expand outward, giving the illusion that we are drawing breath into the ‘stomach’.
In contrast solely drawing air into the chest by expanding the chest means that we are utilising less efficient smaller ancillary muscles through out the chest area and can result in a less effecient breath intake. In reality by using the ‘stomach breathing’ technique, we are just drawing more breath into more of the lungs, filling them to a higher capacity than we usually do. Gray Cook – author of ‘Movement‘ – teaches a similar idea in his “alligator breathing” exercises, where he gets the client to lay face first on the ground and concentrate on breathing through the stomach instead of the chest (the result apparently looks like an alligator!)
Breathing technique is really quite simple, yet I see it neglected more often than not. So how is it implemented in exercise? An easy rule of thumb is: Breathe in during the less hard work, Breathe out (in a slow, controlled manner) during the hard work. Imagine you are doing a push up (or even better actually do one). On the downward phase (eccentric) draw a nice big breath in through the nose, ensuring you practice using your diaphragm. On the up phase (concentric) breathe steadily out through the mouth, expelling evenly through the effort. Easy!
So next time you’re tackling something hard, whether it be lifting something heavy or moving your own body around, give a thought to the quality and quantity of your breath. It will probably make what you’re doing easier and might even save you some pain in the long run.
Sustainability has become a bit of a buzz word of late. It seems everyone is trying to be more sustainable in every facet of life. But have you ever considered your fitness among these facets? Not many people do it would seem. Anecdotally from my time working as a personal trainer, I found that most people fit into one of four catagories when it came to gym usage –
- one off – people who come for one contract term and leave
- cyclic – people who would come for a few months, then disappear for a few months, then return at the same level that they initially started
- sporadic – people who came inconsistently over a long period of time
- consistent – people who consistently came and generally achieved their goal.
It became evident that a big cause of these behaviours was the amount of money that the person had. I felt that the whole fitness industry was (and still is) marketing itself as a quick fix. Pay us X amount and we will get you (fit/skinny/awesome) in (insert time frame). It gives people this idea that if they pay money, they get results, like going to a supermarket. It also, unfortunately, means that people think if they pay more money, they get better results. Usually that’s pretty far from the truth, yet recent statistics show that the gym is the second most popular form of exercise (link). The point is that people are equalling money to fitness.
This is ultimately unsustainable. This is also one of the main reasons I left working in these environments to start my own thing. I wanted to teach people that you don’t need equipment or mirrors, just your own body and the knowledge of how to use it – something that, somewhere between being a child and now, we seem to have forgotten. Our bodies were made to move, all we have to do is ‘rediscover’ how that is.
What got me really thinking about this was the fact that I am moving up to Sydney soon. One of the hardest parts of leaving Canberra is having to leave the group of people that I’m training – the tribe. I felt like I was letting them down by not being here to train them. In reality though this situation is precisely what I have been training them for. This is why I struck out to train on my own. So that people don’t have to feel like they are tied down to a gym. I try to never hold back information so that people feel empowered to use what I teach them to train themselves, in their own time.
Have I done enough in getting them prepared to take the next step of a sustainable fitness lifestyle? Only time will tell, but on the up side Sydney is only three hours away and I’m always connecting with people via email, social media and over the phone.
I like to think that I have created a community of like-minded people who will continue to train together and support each other. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle and moving naturally is so much easier when you have a network of people who do it with you. Making a commitment to meet friends for a session can help us get out of bed in the morning to train.
So my hope is that the tribe will continue to grow through the enthusiasm and commitment of the people that have brought it to life. The best part about it is that there won’t be a cost to be part of this community, which is the part that will enable it to be sustainable over time.